Ian Morris is nothing if not ambitious. A professor of history and archaeology at Stanford University, Morris has written a new book, Why the West Rules – For Now in which he attempts an audacious unified field theory of history – a set of axioms and theorems that tries to explain all of human development, from the age of proto-humans to the present.
Morris’ audacity pays off in this survey of the grand sweep of human history which is written in a readable, almost breezy style. These principles explain why Europe and the West came to rule the planet, and why that rule is probably ending. Human history, Morris claims, is ultimately made by “maps not chaps.” That is, the prime movers in human development are geography and climate, not the inspired decisions or foolish mistakes made by political leaders.
But human nature does play a role. Morris puts forth what he calls the Morris theorem: “change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things. And they rarely know what they’re doing.” He credits humans acting according to the Morris theorem with the really big changes in culture like the rise of agriculture, the creation of city states and empires, and the Industrial Revolution.
A third important force in Morris’ scheme is what he calls the paradox of development: that “rising social development generates the very forces that undermine further social development.” We’re living that paradox right now, as the fossil fuel technologies that made the Industrial Revolution possible are causing climate change that puts further development in jeopardy.
Add to these forces the terrible “five horsemen of the apocalypse” that accompany catastrophes like the fall of the Roman Empire. Those five horsemen, according to Morris, are famine, epidemics, uncontrolled migration, state failure and climate change.
Using these simple theorems, Morris narrates his way through history and comes to some surprising (and depressing) conclusions about what the way forward will look like. Taking the long view, Morris shows how these forces were behind the rise and fall of civilizations. In the last chapter, he ponders whether the five horsemen are saddling up for a run at our own civilization as climate change and resource depletion propel us toward our own potential catastrophe.
For a taste of Morris’ thought, check out these interviews and lectures:
Ian Morris’s East-West History of an Endangered Species: Us, interview with Christopher Lyden on Radio Open Source (website).